By Daniel K. Buntovnik
On August 19-20, 2015, the musical group Laibach will do a ‘Liberation Day’ tour of Pyongang, capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea. Chogukhaebangŭi nal or ‘Liberation of the Fatherland Day’, known in the West as ‘Victory over Japan Day’, commemorates the 1945 surrender of the Empire of Japan following a series of heinous crimes against humanity carried out by the American government against civilian non-combatants in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Laibach has generated a fair deal of controversy over the years, stemming mainly from their deliberately provocative appropriation of Nazi aesthetics, including the swastika and Schutzstaffel (SS) uniforms. The band was formed in Yugoslavia in June 1980, less than a month after the death of the iconic Balkan leader Josip Broz Tito. This corresponds precisely to the historical moment where ethno-separatist and nationalist trends began to rise sharply in Yugoslavia, culminating in a series of wars and atrocities leading to the country’s disintegration. The band sings in German (although not exclusively), and a bit of onomastic digging reveals that the band took its name from the German word for Ljubljana, the capital of the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia which was occupied by both Italian fascists and then Nazi Germans during the Second World War.
While the band’s visit is unlikely to signal the forthcoming addition of Pyongyang to the standard circuit for artists like Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, or Iggy Azalea, the show is still remarkable for a number of reasons.
First, North Korea is seen as a pariah — it’s hard to imagine another country whose level of political and cultural isolation rivals that of the DPRK. Earlier this year, state functionaries in the US imposed a new round of sanctions after accusing it of waging “cyberwarfare” on Sony Pictures in retaliation for The Interview, a would-be comedy turned yellowface propaganda film depicting the assassination of the country’s head of state which was produced in collaboration with the CIA. The Interview and the ensuing real world conflict it helped escalate aren’t the only recent of examples of this imperialist entertainment complex rearing its ugly head. In 2012, a remake of the 1985 film Red Dawn depicted a North Korean invasion and occupation of the United States, an absurd scenario by any stretch of the imagination. Meanwhile, the US, whose weapons of mass destruction stockpile dwarfs that of North Korea, continues to carry out war games in the region on a regular basis which simulate bombing and invasion.
Though the DPRK is still in a de jure state of war, that hasn’t stopped Westerners, including businesspersons, tourists, artists, athletes, educators, and journalists from travelling there. In 2009, Swedish fashion company Noko Jeans became the first foreign capitalists to import trousers tailored in the DPRK. Norwegian artist Morten Traavik has collaborated with North Korean artists and cultural authorities and is the one largely responsible for coordinating Laibach’s ‘Liberation Day Tour’. Former NBA star Dennis Rodman generated a big brouhaha as well when he made visits to North Korea with Vice Media. And despite censorship, the DPRK even recruits Westerner educators to teach in its school system. Laibach follows in the footsteps of all these people, but breaks ground in at least one outstanding way: it is the first foreign musical group to play in North Korea, as far as anyone can recall.
All of these signs point towards a timid rapprochement between the Kim dynasty and the West as it struggles to survive in a global geopolitical climate which is generally hostile to it. This is mirrored in this year’s re-establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba, another state hit heavily by imperialist sanctions where private enterprises have made significant inroads. Nevertheless, these developments demonstrate that, contrary to the bourgeois media narrative, these reclusive states are not isolationist entirely by choice, but largely as a consequence of sanctions and embargoes imposed by the Global North.
Laibach is set to play their shows at the Kim Won Gyun Conservatory, exposing approximately 2,000 people to their spectacle over the course of two days; that’s around 0.008% of the country’s population. While little seems to be known for certain about who will be amongst those eight-thousandths of a percent of the populace in attendance, or about the process citizens must go through to gain entry to the event, bourgeois journalists speculate that the audience will be made up virtually entirely of Workers’ Party of Korea apparatchiks and/or their children.
To what extent Laibach will play up its ‘totalitarian’ image (which is otherwise its defining element) while in Korea, and whether Laibach will leave a significant impression on the North Korean public in terms of their idea of ‘The Occident’ at large remains to be seen. There are nevertheless a few things we can examine here.
Laibach is well-known for giving off a Nazi vibe. While some attempt to label it ‘totalitarian’ — dubiously equating Nazism with Communism — their aesthetic firmly remains predominantly Nazi. Recurring colors in promotional material and music videos are red, black, and white. Uniforms worn on stage, in music videos, and in promo photos are obviously based on the SS. They sing in German. They have white skin. All of this has made a lot of people question whether these musicians might be supporters of the far right.
Laibach’s ‘Classic Nazi’ look, circa 2003
Even with their newer, toned-down look (2011), the group would still not look out of place at a Neo-Nazi rally:
Jeff Schoep, leader of America’s largest Hitlerian hate group, speaks at a Neo-Nazi rally in 2012. As you can see, Neo-Nazi fashion trends follow a similar trajectory to that of Laibach.
The same question arises, and with all the more frequency, with regards to Laibach’s more commercial, more bro-ish, and less original little brother, Rammstein. In fact, Laibach anticipated a whole movement of Nazi-themed industrial and metal music. ‘National Socialist Black Metal’ (NSBM) exploded in the 1990s with explicitly pro-white supremacist lyrics. But other groups took the Laibach route: Nazi imagery combined with a (supposed) sense of ironic detachment. Perhaps the most notorious example of this kind of group is Hanzel und Gretyl. Like Laibach, this New York-based industrial rock band sings mostly in German and English and they incorporate space elements as well (see Iron Sky, a nearly unwatchable sci-fi film about a Nazi moon colony for which Laibach produced the soundtrack). In a 2009 interview, Hanzel und Gretyl give the following answer when questioned about the Nazi nature of their music:
Vas [Gretyl]: “No, it’s not Nazi music!”
Loopy [Hanzel]: “I think the person should react however they’re gonna react. I mean, we’re just sort of putting it out there. It’s a… maybe an extreme mode of expression and it’s gonna elicit different types of reactions. And that’s what we’re most interested in. We’re just putting it out here to see what happens. It’s not hate inspired.”
Vas [Gretyl]: “We just like to have fun!”
What has happened is that, even if we take at face value the dubious claim that their music wasn’t hate-inspired, it has indeed inspired haters. Their song “Third Reich From the Sun” was uploaded by Youtube user “88nordichate” (88 means ‘Heil Hitler’ in Neo-Nazi numerology, H being the eighth letter of the alphabet) over five years ago and has a comments section riddled with pro-white supremacist statements. “88nordichate” has uploaded dozens of other Neo-Nazi and Neo-Confederate videos, among them two other Hanzel und Gretyl music videos. The fact that Hanzel und Gretyl and Metropolis Records haven’t reported these videos for copyright infringement after more than half a decade would indicate that Hanzel und Gretyl and/or their manager either: (a) don’t ever use or check Youtube (unlikely), (b) don’t mind hate groups and bigots using their music as a platform for outreach and networking, or (c) haven’t experienced any backlash from their fans, whose political views range anywhere from apolitical to extreme right-wing.
The inner cover sleeve of Laibach’s third studio album, Opus Dei, features the following image created by John Heartfield (1934), a man regarded as an innovator in the instrumentalization of art towards political ends. Heartfield was a communist and one of the first people to be persecuted by the Nazi regime after it came to power:
Subtext reads: “Blood and Iron – The slogan which Bismarck formulated lives again in the new German state. The executioners’ bloodstained axes form the Nazi swastika.”
Traavik, the Norwegian who sold the DPRK on a Laibach show, says that Laibach are “not a band making statements, but a band that is always questioning contemporary attitudes.”
Surely Heartfield wanted to make a statement with his above artwork. And one would be hard-pressed to accept that a group of men wearing SS uniforms and grunting in German about fascism, witchcraft, and NATO are merely “questioning contemporary attitudes”. Even if you did accept that, a question is also a statement insofar as it reflects the interest of the one who asks it. Using music as a tool for posing questions makes Laibach’s orientation instrumentalist. A critique of instrumental artwork must evaluate how effectively, and to what practical ends, that art is instrumentalized.
One of Laibach’s most famous contemporary countrymen is the anti-capitalist psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek. He has defended both Laibach and Rammstein from critics who say that their fetish for Nazi militarist iconography could be dangerous. Not only does Zizek exonerate them of any wrongdoing, but he actually goes so far as to say that their approach is “fighting Nazism”.
“The minimal elements of the Nazi ideology enacted by Rammstein are something like pure elements of libidinal investment,” Slavoj Zizek informs us in the documentary film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012) as frontman Till Lindemann goose-steps across a stage. “Enjoyment has to be, as it were, condensed in some minimal ticks, gestures which do not have precise ideological meaning. What Rammstein does is it liberates these elements from their Nazi articulation. It allows us to enjoy them in their pre-ideological state. The way to fight Nazism is to enjoy these elements, ridiculous as they were here, by suspending the Nazi’s horizon of meaning. This way you undermine Nazism from within.”
Short of a time machine, these elements, gestures or constellations of “minimal ticks” can never be returned to a “pre-ideological state”. Zizek is actually appealing to de-politicization/decontextualization or, at best, ideological dilution. “Suspending the Nazi’s horizon of meaning” is not possible without cultural amnesia. This is not the way to fight Nazism, at least according to survivors of the death camps, who are some of the strongest advocates of memory. The very idea of being able to de-politicize the iconography of Nazi militarism, strip it bare of its Nazi significance, is akin to the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency’s ludicrous goal of expunging Nazi war criminals of their genocidal past in the post-World War II US government program Operation Paperclip, which was done for the same reason Zizek puts forth here: to nicely bring the German scientists to a pre-ideological state where their “enjoyable” elements were then accessible in the form of strategic scientific knowledge and data — at the expense of justice.
As we have seen in the case of Hanzel und Gretyl, the injection of Nazi elements into a “pre-ideological [de-politicized] state” is liable to attract and mobilize those who genuinely admire and romanticize Nazism.
In the best case scenario, the majority of those attracted to the band will be apolitical folks who simply find it interesting or enjoy the sound of the music and don’t care to examine its deeper message, while a minority will appreciate the work as a political critique and be strengthened or encouraged in adopting an anti-fascist worldview. Here live performances may even function as political sociodramas, which are a form of group psychodrama. Kellerman (2007) writes in Sociodrama and Collective Trauma, “In sociodrama groups that explore the effects of oppressive regimes and totalitarian political systems, it may be suitable to suggest that group members show this situation in action.”
Nevertheless, the worst case scenario, that of spreading romanticization and fetishization of militarist iconography (and by extension, militarism itself) among fans remains possible, even for Laibach, no matter the group members’ intentions. It would be no stretch of the imagination to envision the baby killers in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 getting psyched up on a Laibach track instead of the Bloodhound Gang’s “The Roof is on Fire”. It’s also been said that the perpetrators of the Beslan school siege listened to Rammstein during the event. De-politicization allows anyone, including Nazis and terrorists, to make the music theirs and instrumentalize it towards politically reactionary ends.
There are still other reasons why this would-be de-politicization or decontextualization of swastikas, goose-stepping, black and brown shirts, arm bands, etc. can be regarded as dangerous.
The mass psychology of fascism is alive and well in today’s world. The authoritarian family, rabid middle classes, crises of free market liberal democracy are all part of our 21st century world. Only when these things have been done away with will it be theoretically possible to divorce the elements of fascism from their horizon of meaning. The mere popularization of the constellation of elements is an indicator of a rising tide of vituperativeness amongst the petite bourgeoisie. Laibach are not licensed therapists qualified to carry out mass sociodrama. They are a rock band.
Whether people are making “libidinal investments” into a militaristic parade or into a performance of musicians on a stage at a consumerist venue, the fact that libidinal energy is being sublimated into anything at all means that everyone involved is a victim of a society which has made them feel that their naturally occurring animalian desires are unacceptable and that they should instead somehow divert that into “higher” desires like rigidly extending their arms at a forty five degree angle towards the Great Leader or enjoying consumeristic musical venues. The latter is all the more insidious precisely because it has become the more acceptable and palpable means of social control. War and genocide in their 21st century forms continue without the former, and are made possible in part by the latter.
Undermining Authoritarianism from Without
Do we really need to get into Nazism in order to undermine it, as Slavoj Zizek suggests?
We might consider some alternative perspectives on this issue to counterbalance Zizek’s.
In 1940, indigenous peoples in North America resolved to disown the swastika, a symbol which had been theirs previous to the rise of Nazism in Europe.
Signing the resolution
In his 1964 autobiography, Romanichal actor Charlie Chaplin wrote of his 1940 film The Great Dictator, “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”
Charlie Chaplin as “The Great Dictator”
Perhaps instead of tolerating, much less enjoying, these elements from within, the best way to fight Nazism is to recognize that the measure of free speech we have under private market liberal democracy and the lack of it under private market fascist dictatorship are really two sides of the same coin. Instead we must practice social responsibility and censor, ban, and lay utter waste to Nazism and fascism from without. We ought personally admonish fascist fucks in an intense and intimidating fashion and culturally repress their desire to be antisocial dickheads until they are forced to take their blasted libidinal investment in other directions. But with this blatantly outrageous and over the top censure bordering on obscene levels of anti-fascist bravado must also come a willingness to patiently and calmly explain why only revolutionary socialism can undo our hierarchical societies’ horrific injustice.
All works cited in compliance with the fair use doctrine.